The Legal Advocate

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Legal Service Corporation/NITA Public Service Program

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This year, NITA’s National Program for Legal Service Attorneys was hosted in Boulder at our headquarters and successfully trained a core group of 32 legal service attorneys from across the nation in trial skills. This program, which took place August 29 – September 1, was led by NITA Program Director Jude Bourque of the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office. Jude has taught over 50 NITA programs since 2004, including public, custom, and public service. He has been involved in 10 of NITA’s Legal Service Corporation programs; this year was his first as Program Director of the Legal Service Corporation program.

 “The faculty was incredible. The instructors included a rotation of seven Program Directors, two judges, six law school instructors, and seven full-time practicing attorneys. NITA’s best instructors came out to teach,” stated Jude.

 NITA’s learning-by-doing method has always been implemented in our programs in order to get all attendees on their feet and practicing the skills they learn. This program was no different. As Jude stated, during the four days there were 14 workshops in which the participants performed different trial skills, culminating in dynamic closing arguments. Jude believed the participants were eager to learn, willing to experiment and improve, and really supported each other.

 Many of the participants had wonderful things to say after attending the program. “The course was absolutely amazing! It was a wonderful, engaging experience that I won’t forget! I had the chance to meet many wonderful advocates… and many wonderful mentors. I came away from my time in Colorado feeling more enthused and have gained the confidence in myself and my work. Thank you!” stated one participant.

 Likewise, others said they learned a lot during the four-day program and felt they gained the confidence they needed to go to trial.

 This year’s Legal Service Corporation program was both a success for the 32 participants, as well as the diverse NITA faculty. Of Jude’s time as Program Director he stated, “I have been blessed to teach NITA programs from coast to coast and even overseas. The programs I’m most honored to teach are the Legal Service programs, by far. The 2017 NITA National Legal Service Trial Skills Training was one of the best groups of lawyers ever.”

Monthly Theme: Bias Part 2

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Interrupting Implicit and Explicit Bias

written by NITA guest Blogger Karen Steinhauser via a FB post written by Karen

I normally don’t post much on Facebook other than pictures but I needed to post this:

I recently was fortunate enough to be the co-director for the NITA National Trial Program. We had participants and faculty from all over the country. This year, we added a session to the program that we had never done before entitled, “interrupting implicit (and explicit) bias. Our focus was addressing the many types of bias that occurs in the courtroom and the effects it has on lawyers’ abilities to be effective advocates, and second how we can interrupt the bias, whether we are the victims of it or observers of it. It was truly one of the most powerful things I have ever been a part of.

A number of things were made very clear. First of all, we all have biases and it is important to recognize and understand that those biases are so that we can interrupt our own biases. Second, these issues are prevalent in the courtroom and in the legal profession in general. Third, for the victims of the bias, it is incredible painful and the pain can last a lifetime; fourth, we all have a responsibility when we see something to say something and to be mentors to others who may not know how to deal with these issues.

These issues, of course are not just limited to the legal profession, and I think these sessions need to be a part of every legal and non-legal organization. I truly believe we need to be addressing it at our law schools and other professional associations. It certainly is as much part of professionalism as knowing the basic rules of Ethics.

I have to thank our incredible faculty who were willing to share with the participants their own stories, as painful as they were, and the participants who truly understood that advocacy isn’t just about knowing how to do a good opening statement or closing argument… that it is about advocating for each other as well.

Esperanza Immigration Rights Project/NITA Public Service Program

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For the first time, NITA and Esperanza Immigration Rights Project joined together to offer a public service program for legal service attorneys in Los Angeles. This trial skills program was held August 7-9 in Santa Monica, CA for 19 attorneys. Program Director, Whitney Untiedt, who has taught at over 50 NITA programs since 2008, brought her knowledge of advocacy skills and passion for NITA, to this training program.

At the conclusion of the program Whitney Untiedt said, “The participants in the Esperanza Immigration Advocacy Program were exceptional learners – dedicated to their clients, and excited to try new techniques to advance their skills. The participants embraced the NITA learning-by-doing method, raised thoughtful questions about best practices in bench trials, and participated in meaningful discussions. They were well-prepared for the performance sessions, and as a result each and every participant was able to demonstrate measurable growth over the course of the three-day program.”

Not only did Whitney see the growth of each individual after the program, but the participants as well saw their skills improve. One participant stated, “[This program] was an incredible opportunity that will reap rewards not only for me, but also for all of my future clients.”

Some of the skills taught during this trial program included: direct examination, making and meeting objections, witness preparation, cross examination, and more. NITA is thrilled to have had the pleasure to work with Pro Bono Coordinator, Kimberly Plotnik, on putting this program together.

Robert VanderLaan Remembered with Scholarship Fund, Memorial in Chicago

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This winter, NITA lost a beloved member of its family, when Program Director Bob VanderLaan passed away on February 28 in his hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. In the words NITA’s Executive Director Karen Lockwood, “Bob’s tremendous energy and talent in teaching touched countless people through NITA. He taught with NITA for thirty-five years, and his immense heart, genuine charm, and energetic legal advocacy made Bob unforgettable to everyone he taught—and taught with.”

Losing Bob was a tremendous blow to the NITA community. Two of his closest NITA friends, Program Director Dan Rabinovitz and longtime faculty member Jon Barnard, have taken the lead to memorialize Bob’s legacy by creating a NITA program scholarship in Bob’s name. Dan recently spoke to The Legal Advocate about the new Robert VanderLaan Memorial Scholarship, how he and Jon will host NITA’s collegial faculty in celebrating Bob’s life at one of Bob’s favorite places in Chicago this fall, and what made Bob such an inspiration to those who knew and loved him best. 

How did you meet Bob?
In the early 1990s, during the Midwest Regional Trial Program in Chicago, several faculty members, including Bob, regularly attended performances by Chicago bluesman Son Seals. During the same period, I was an Assistant Cook County State’s Attorney and played trumpet for Son Seals. At one of those shows, Bob learned I was a prosecutor, and shortly thereafter, he spearheaded an effort to obtain a scholarship for me to attend NITA’s National Session in Boulder. During that National Session, in 1994, Bob was my team leader and we became friends.

What qualities made him unique among NITA instructors?
Bob’s infectious level of energy made him unique literally everywhere he went. When you look up the phrase “natural charmer” in the dictionary, it shows his picture. He had a seemingly magical way of critiquing a student’s performance, by delivering the appropriate criticism, while at the same time making a student excited to continue to improve. This approach was not only consistent, but it was completely natural and totally effortless.

Do you have a favorite memory of working with him?
There are so many to choose from, but I think my favorite memory of working with Bob was when he was selected to be the Program Director of the National Session, which coincided with NITA’s fortieth anniversary celebration. He was so proud to have been selected to lead that program at that special time. He threw himself into leading that event in such a meaningful, soulful way that it made each and every person associated with that program felt proud to be working with and for Bob. The same natural ability he had to make a student feel great was just as powerful a tool for relating to the faculty members who taught with him.

What did you learn from Bob?
I learned how to be a better trial lawyer, a better instructor, and a better person. And I learned the importance of being able to survive on only a few hours of sleep, when necessary.

You’ve established NITA’s Robert VanderLaan Memorial Scholarship as a lasting tribute. How did it come about?
Almost immediately after Bob’s passing, [fellow NITA faculty member] Jon Barnard and I began brainstorming about organizing something that would honor Bob in a way that preserved his memory and spirit. This tribute is part of the way we are coping with the tremendous sadness we both feel. We wanted to do something that struck the same balance between work and play that dominated Bob’s life. And so we decided to raise funds for a scholarship in his name, so that for a very long time, each year at least one student gets to participate in a program Bob regularly taught. So that’s the work part. But Bob was also someone who loved to have fun—in many ways. One of those ways was to gather with friends, raise a glass or two, and tell and listen to great stories. So the second part of our tribute is an event where those who also enjoyed doing that with Bob can do that together.

What’s the best way to make a donation to the fund?
Making an online donation is fast and easy when you click this link: donate and from the “Select Fund/Amount” section, use the dropdown menu and select The Robert VanderLaan Memorial Scholarship Fund option. I want to mention that the founding donors of this scholarship fund have pledged to match the first $30,000 in donations that NITA receives—in effect, we will double your contribution if you donate now. Each year, this scholarship will provide tuition, travel, and lodging for one attendee to attend a program at which Bob taught.

Describe the plans for the memorial you and Jon Barnard are hosting in Chicago on November 11.
We are going to gather at one of Bob’s favorite Chicago places—Mike Ditka’s restaurant—and we are going to eat, drink, be merry and tell a bunch of Bob VanderLaan stories. Over that weekend, the Bears play the Packers in Chicago. We hope that element will elevate the energy at Ditka’s that evening. But I should add that if people plan on attending, they should let us know in advance, so we can make sure we have a big enough room, by emailing me at rabinovitzd@gtlaw.com.

How would you like Bob to be remembered?
I hope Bob is remembered as the smart, warm, funny, tough, talented, dedicated, and experienced human being that he was. I hope he is remembered as someone who through teaching for NITA for over thirty-five years helped literally hundreds, if not thousands, of young lawyers become better trial lawyers. And finally, I hope he is remembered as someone who day in and day out was fun to be around.

NITA would like to invite you to join Dan Rabinovitz, Jon Barnard, and Bob’s family and friends at Ditka’s on Saturday, November 11, 2017, to remember and celebrate Bob’s life. RSVP directly to Dan to make reservations and receive further details on the memorial. Please make your travel plans early, as we expect the Bears‒Packers Midwest rivalry will make hotel rooms and Airbnb rentals in Chicago scarce as game weekend draws near.

Monthly Theme: Bias Part 1

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A Trial Lawyer’s Guide to Minimizing Bias

By Karen Hester, CEO of Center for Legal Inclusiveness

There’s a lot of talk about bias these days and unfortunately, it seems to be just that … talk. Many people have an idea about what it is and most just don’t know what to do. This blog post is a primer about bias – what it is, why it’s relevant and, most importantly, how you as a trial lawyer can reduce the impacts of bias in the courtroom by starting with three-steps.

What is bias?

Implicit biases or unconscious bias are those attitudes, beliefs or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions and decision-making. These biases are not always inherently bad, in fact, they help us make snap decisions. Problems arise, however, when we continue to make generalizations and don’t take into account new information that contradicts it[1].   

Why it’s relevant?

As attorneys, we are charged with the mission to zealously represent our clients – be they rich or poor, white or black, popular or disdained – with the objective to ensure fairness and equity under the law. Yet, research repeatedly concludes that attorney bias can and does impact the communication, counseling and representation of clients; interactions with jurors, witnesses and court actors; the evaluation of evidence, prioritizing cases and strategy; and recommending, accepting or rejecting offers related to pre-trial release, sentencing or probation.

We know that bias can impact jurors, judges and other attorneys, but this blog focuses on trial lawyers.  I encourage you to look internally and use these three affirmative steps to mitigate the effect of implicit bias.

Step One: Get Real

This is probably the easiest step of them all. If you’re breathing, you have implicit bias. Sorry, no two ways around it. Don’t take my word for it, start with a free online, anonymous test already taken by over five million people. The Implicit Association Test (IAT) is produced by Project Implicit and measures an individual’s unconscious attitudes about characteristics or traits[2].  The IAT measures bias related to race, ethnicity, gender, age, weight and other characteristics. After you take the test, my hope is you’ll be motivated to move forward to take the next steps to overcome your bias.   

Step Two: Do Better

As the saying goes “If you know better, do better.”  There are many things you can do to “do better.”  They are not intrinsically hard, but they likely won’t come naturally, and may actually increase the amount of time it takes to make decisions. But in this case, the end does justify the means.  Here are a few things you can do now:

  • Create a Decision-Making Process: Be transparent and operate within a well thought-out structure to make objective decisions. I really like using a checklist. Many biases occur when we tend to identify with someone who reminds us of ourselves. When that happens, we may give that person more benefit of the doubt or be more willing to work with them. But for those with whom we don’t have a natural affinity, we may be less inclined to go that extra mile. Use your checklist to check yourself.
  • Challenge Stereotypes: Once you are aware of your stereotypes, affirmatively replace those responses with non-stereotypical ones. Keep doing that until those initial stereotypical responses are automatically replaced with unbiased ones. For example, my mom loved Perry Mason, and as a kid, I would watch the reruns with her. Having never met a lawyer, I thought they were all white men, and defense attorneys were smarter than both the police and prosecutors. But my career path proved otherwise as I met attorneys of various backgrounds – plus, both my brother and sister-in-law are deputy DAs, so I know they’re smart too.
  • Out-Group Contact: Do a self-check. With whom do you typically spend time? With whom do you have an affinity? It is natural to be comfortable with people like yourself, or people who have the same experiences or who live in the same environment – typically these people are your “in-groups.” Your biases and generalizations about those outside your circle, your “out-group,” won’t change unless you push yourself to be around others who are unlike you. So make it top-of-mind and action to widen your experiences by engaging in positive interactions with out-group members.

Step Three: Be Mindful & Repeat

Implicit bias is not something you can ever completely remove but that doesn’t mean that you can’t decrease its impact on the decisions you make. Take the time to make a well-thought out, objective and informed decision, especially since you’re in a profession where others are dependent on you.  Repeat Step Two, until it becomes an unconscious action on your part.

Karen Hester is CEO of Center for Legal Inclusiveness, a nonprofit in Denver which works to make the legal profession more diverse and inclusive. CLI provides bias training year-round nationally and at its annual May conference, the Legal Inclusiveness & Diversity Summit.

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[1]  For more in-depth discussion about bias in the workplace generally, see my February 2017 NITA webinar on the topic entitled “Barriers and Bias in the Workplace and Winning Despite Them.”
[2] https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/education.html

NITA’s team of practicing lawyers, professors and judges from around the nation dedicates its efforts to the training and development of skilled and ethical legal advocates to improve the adversarial justice system. NITA's Goals are to:
  • Promote justice through effective and ethical advocacy.
  • Train and mentor lawyers to be competent and ethical advocates in pursuit of justice.
  • Develop and teach trial advocacy skills to support and promote the effective and fair administration of justice.
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